Ken Loach is something of a national treasure; a British director who is a genuine auteur, successful on his own terms and never having felt the need to head to Hollywood to make movies. He’s also a strange sort of national treasure “ they’re usually lovable, comforting figures whereas Loach has spent his career making confrontational, fiercely political, gritty films, like Kes, Sweet Sixteen and The Wind That Shakes The Barley.
Loach’s latest is The Angels’ Share which arrives in cinemas on the back of winning the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Written by his regular collaborator Paul Laverty, it tells the story of Robbie, a young man who is up in court for the umpteenth time, on an assault charge. The judge takes into account the fact that he’s about to become a father and spares him jail, but Robbie’s problems are far from over. He’s got 300 hours of community payback to do, his victim seeking a brutal revenge, and his girlfriend’s family, who express (with their fists) a pretty strong desire for him to stay away from her and his new son. On top of this he has no money, no job and no prospect to escape the cycle of violence his life has become.
Robbie however, is determined to put his past behind him and be a good father to his son. Fortunately, he also has Harry, a sympathetic supervisor for his community payback. Harry takes him and his fellow convicts under his wing, and shares his love of whisky with them (the Angels’ share is a term used in distilling that refers to the amount of whisky that is lost due to evaporation). Robbie finds that he has a taste for it and a naturally refined palette. On top of that, he discovers that a rare and exceptionally expensive whisky is soon to be up for auction in the highlands, and a plan starts to form in his mind¦
The Angels’ Share starts out feeling like a typical Loachian social realist film, complete with naturalistic dialogue, non-professional actors and arguments with the BBFC about how many uses of the C word you can have in a 15 certificate movie. But the film develops elements of warm-hearted comedy, with a heist element thrown in. This takes a bit of adjusting to “ we’re generally used to a consistent tone in movies “ you don’t often get films that combine genuine laughs with an illustration of the difficulties of escaping grinding poverty and a life of crime “ but once you get used to it, it starts to work.
As is so often the case with Loach’s films, the cast of mostly unknowns are excellent across the board. Paul Brannigan as Robbie is the standout “ he’s a fully rounded character, with a lot of flaws, and a violent streak, but he makes us believe in his desire to change. The shift from drama to comedy is well-handled, although most of the laughs come at the expense of a hapless, not very bright character named Albert, which feels slightly cruel at times. But this small gripe aside, The Angels’ Share has a lot to recommend it. While it lacks the power of a film like Sweet Sixteen, it lacks its bleakness too, and many will find more to enjoy in this than they might have in other of Loach’s films.